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I've seen comments on a few posts indicating that song lyrics are off topic. I have no beef with that rule.

However, is asking for an analysis of specific lines or portions of poetry always off-topic for the same reason? I enjoy reading poetry and sometimes have questions that might involve figurative interpretation, but which nonetheless seem to me to be questions about English. I'm unsure if posting them on ELU is appropriate.

I got a mostly positive reception to my question about Gil Scott-Heron's Comment #1, though one person did mention in a comment that "this is why song-lyrics are off-topic." (It's a spoken-word poem, but I understand why many people referred to it as a song.)

Here's a hypothetical example: I recently read the Emily Dickinson poem "To fight aloud is very brave."

I was unsure of the meaning of the last line

And Uniforms of snow.

Would asking about this line be too "figurative" for the site? Is it "primarily opinion based?"

This might not be the best example, because I'm pretty sure it just means "white." But as the question title implies, I'm wondering if people can offer general guidelines about how to judge when verse is or isn't appropriate for posting in a question.

Thanks.

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    Song lyrics are poetry. Interpretation is off topic. – Mitch May 20 '17 at 17:26
  • @Mitch does that mean that interpreting a figurative meaning is always off-topic, regardless of whether it occurs in verse or prose? Because then it seems like a rule often violated. – RaceYouAnytime May 20 '17 at 17:30
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    @RaceYouAnytime It means if there's no objectively correct answer to a question, the question isn't a great fit for SE. The site is designed for factual questions. If we open the door to interpretation, it becomes a popularity contest, not a repository of knowledge. Having said that, there is a small niche of acceptable questions of interpretation: those works which have received significant scholarly attention, and therefore credible arguments can be made on the strength of a body of expert literature. Some poems fall into this category. – Dan Bron May 20 '17 at 17:58
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    There really aren't rules here, only suggestions with different strengths. "What did Steve Miller mean by 'pompatus of love'?" is pretty closable because it is so opinion based. Actually that is the difficulty with general literary interpretation and poetic language of any kind - it often has little to do with the specific language and more to do with culture and art. Figurative meanings are usually repeatable usages in the language, but also often not. Also, if a question is interesting enough and asked in a reasonable manner, that may overshadow any other weaknesses (like opinion basedness). – Mitch May 20 '17 at 18:00
  • See also, my answer to another question. – NVZ May 20 '17 at 18:57
  • Thanks all, that seems sensible. – RaceYouAnytime May 20 '17 at 22:31
  • @RaceYouAnytime Feel free to sum up what you understood, and I recommend that you write an answer yourself for posterity. :) – NVZ May 21 '17 at 16:38
  • @NVZ you mean write an answer to this question based on the summary of the comments (and linked answers)? – RaceYouAnytime May 21 '17 at 16:39
  • @RaceYouAnytime exactly, and it is highly encouraged. :) – NVZ May 21 '17 at 16:40
  • @NVZ I didn't know that, I will do. Thanks. – RaceYouAnytime May 21 '17 at 16:40
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    @RaceYouAnytime Read more here: It’s OK to Ask and Answer Your Own Questions -- a blog post from the co-founder himself. – NVZ May 21 '17 at 16:42
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It seems that the overarching guideline is that questions should be objective enough that they can have a "correct" answer, to avoid being "Primarily Opinon Based." Asking for interpretation of figurative language is generally off-topic, because if there is no one correct answer, it can turn into a competetion for what interpretation is most popular. In this sense, it has less to do with whether the use comes from a song or a poem or prose, but with to what degree the question is about interpretation.

There are some cases where it may be acceptable, as Dan Bron explains:

There is a small niche of acceptable questions of interpretation: those works which have received significant scholarly attention, and therefore credible arguments can be made on the strength of a body of expert literature. Some poems fall into this category.

The challenge with asking for an interpretation of figurative language is described well by Mitch (emphasis mine):

That is the difficulty with general literary interpretation and poetic language of any kind - it often has little to do with the specific language and more to do with culture and art. Figurative meanings are usually repeatable usages in the language, but also often not.

For this reason, questions related to often-used expressions and sayings are completely acceptable, as they relate to how the English language is used. But when a writer uses figurative language to express something in a unique, unprecedented way, this does not necessarily apply.

Consider this question about the figurative use of "having a beef" with something or someone -- an example I chose because I used this figurative phrase in my question:

Do you have a beef with me?

The question is acceptable because the term is not limited to one artist's use and interpretation, but is well grounded enough to be a facet of the English language.

On the other hand, there are some cases where the interpretation has less to do with an understanding of the English language and is more open to interpretation. In such cases, this is off-topic for a site like Stack Exchange, and better suited for a site about poetic interpretation specifically.

With all of this in mind, it seems worth noting that there are no hard-and-fast rules on this site, but as Mitch says, "only suggestions with different strengths." Oftentimes, if a question is interesting and asked in a reasonable manner, the community may give the question the benefit of the doubt for the insight it has the potential to yield, even if the question has other weaknesses, such as opinion bias.

It was suggested that I summarize my understanding based on the comments to form my own answer to my own question. Anyone is welcome (in fact, encouraged) to edit this answer if they see fit and believe there are other important points to take into consideration.

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    Well done! +1. I took you up on your offer to edit, and made a small change. You might also be interested in the "community wiki" feature of posts on SE, which are designed for just those cases where you're not interested in ownership of the post and want to invite everyone to weigh in. – Dan Bron May 21 '17 at 18:02
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    +1 Great summary. :) This will help future visitors. – NVZ May 21 '17 at 19:29
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    Nice summary. I'd add that sometimes the key is how you the question is framed. For example, if you presented the Dickenson poem, and asked, "What does uniforms of snow mean?" then the question might be closed, because there are likely several possible interpretations. However, someone else might ask, "Is uniforms of snow a common idiom?" That question might be less likely to be closed, because it's more about the English language and less about a literary meaning. – J.R. May 25 '17 at 19:21
  • A snag here is that there may be a correct answer (Tolkien says, for instance, that LOTR was not an allegory of WWII), but that others may read meaning into a piece of writing that would seem pretty obvious had the author not discounted it. ELU examines English language and (reasonably well accepted, and not inherently arguable) usage. This means that nonce usages and interpretations of say pop lyrics are best avoided. A portion of a song etc may obviously be submitted for discussion without asking, essentially, 'what does X mean by ...?' – Edwin Ashworth May 29 '17 at 23:56

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